If you’ve been doing brand strategy for a while, you can feel like you’ve hit a plateau. It's hard to know how to keep growing your skills.
These book recommendations are for you.
There are a few directions you could go to deepen your brand strategy skills and the value you offer clients.
First, identify where you feel a bit stuck from this list. It will direct you to the books, described below, that will help you get better at brand strategy development.
1.Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine and Better Future For Everyone, Satya Nadella
Books like this first one will help you understand the role of brand strategy in driving a business forward.
Satya Nadella is Microsoft's CEO and, according to Brand Finance, the world’s number one at managing and growing their brand.
His book, Hit Refresh, is a wonderful and recent example of the role of both brand strategy and business strategy in turning a company around.
In 2014 Microsoft's stock price had stalled. In the words of Satya Nadella, "The company was sick... Job one was to build hope."
Within 3 years, Microsoft had generated $250bn in market value, their stock had soared by 90% and they achieved 95% approval on Glassdoor.
The turnaround started with answering some of the core questions you have to answer in any brand strategy.
"We had to answer for ourselves what is the company about? Why do we exist?... It was time to rediscover our soul - what makes us unique."
And it continues with Nadella's consistent focus on the culture he wants to build - all of which stems from the brand strategy and the cultural attributes he defined as part of it.
You might find it strange I include a book like this, but if you’re trying to advance your skills, it’s time you stop reading the basic books about other people’s brand frameworks.
Spend your time instead on understanding how brand impacts business growth and you’ll become a much more valuable voice in the boardroom.
Other books to explore like this are ‘Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’ and ‘How Google Works: Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg.’
Here’s some more resources on this topic:
Why brand strategy is important.
How to convince a CEO on the importance of brand strategy.
My second recommendation is 'GROW: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit At The World’s 50 Greatest Companies', by Jim Stengel.
Why? Because it attempts to put data behind the importance of brand strategy (here's more if you want it), it includes big brand case studies (think Pampers, Discovery, Method) but what’s most useful: it tells you what it takes to implement a brand strategy successfully.
“The one sure mistake you can make is failing to aim high. If you are not ambitious enough to want to make a positive difference in people’s lives, you won’t make a big positive difference in your business’s bottom line either.”
“A business leader’s greatest leverage lies in rallying employees and customers alike to an ideal of improving people’s lives.”
I know Bryon Sharp has derided the research done for this book. But the book is still valuable for its clear explanation and case studies on how you embed a brand strategy in a business; e.g., explaining what it took, once they had decided upon the Pampers brand strategy, to actually get the organisation to align around it.
The next one I'd recommend to help you get better advise clients on how to embed brand strategy into a business is 'Fusion: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World's Greatest Companies' by Denise Lee Yohn.
Over the years there have been a handful of times I've felt disappointed with a brand strategy project I've worked on.
The reason has always been the same.
I've failed to convince the CEO that brand strategy is not just about marketing, and in turn he (sadly, has always been a 'he') has refused to engage his CHRO in the project.
This has often been exacerbated by a poor relationship between the CMO and CHRO who have felt their domains have nothing to do with each other.
But as Denise writes in Fusion:
"When it comes to building brands, leaders typically expect their marketing departments to promote awareness, create images, and send messages... But growth in brand equity and influence comes from an entirely different way of thinking about and using brands: it comes from leaders driving everything their organisation does with a clear, focused, distinctive brand [strategy] - what they want their brand to be known for."
You can't do this unless you engage marketing - and the broader creation of your customer experience with HR and the employee experience.
I've been banging this drum for years - it's so refreshing to see someone has written the book on it!
Highly recommend you read it if you're a brand strategy consultant, CEO, CMO or CHRO.
Two more books like this:
Reculturing: Design Your Company Culture To Connect With Strategy And Purpose For Lasting Success – Melissa Daimler
CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest - Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller, Vikram Malhotra (Senior McKinsey partners).
4.Building A Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, Donald Miller
This book promises to help you ‘clarify your message so customers will listen.’
It’s a great one if you’ve got yourself into a bit of a mess with your frameworks and tools.
If you know you’re making things overly complicated, but you don’t know how to pull back.
It reminds brand strategists and marketers of the core things that can make or break strategy and messaging.
Miller’s point of view is that having a strategy, and then communicating this clearly, isn’t the cherry on the cake. It’s a make-or-break ingredient - just as important as having a great product or service in the first place.
“The reality is we aren’t just in a race to get our products to market; we’re also in a race to communicate why our customers need those products in their lives. Even if we have the best product in the marketplace, we’ll lose to an inferior product if our competitor’s offer is communicated more clearly.”
He frames the creation of the strategy in the concept of storytelling, frequently using movies as examples, but the principles are ones every brand strategist should know:
None of this is ground-breaking if you’ve been doing brand strategy for a while, but it’s a useful reset on what to focus on, and helpful if you’re trying to take brand strategy further into messaging or copy.
Here’s a summary of the book pulling out what's most relevant to brand strategists if you you're pressed for time.
And if your brand strategy framework is looking complicated in any way, then do yourself and your clients a favour and find a simple and clear one that speaks their language and can work across any industry. Here’s the one I use.
5. Building Distinctive Brand Assets, Jenni Romaniuk
If you work with designers to create brand identities then you need to know about the principles within this book.
It explains what Distinctive Brand Assets are, why they are important, and what you should focus on in order to create a successful brand identity.
It also gives you powerful arguments to fight back against new people who come into a client’s business and want to tamper with a current brand identity for the wrong reasons!
If you're a designer and think you should pass on this since you've done tons of brand identities before: don't.
You need to know what your clients are reading and the things they will ask you for.
If you haven't yet been asked to create Distinctive Brand Assets, or, '"What are our distinctive brand assets within our current identity?", you will be soon.
Another critical tool to help in the briefing process is the brief itself. Here’s some guidance on what needs to go into a brand identity brief.
And here’s more good reads on brand identity.
6. Brand Naming: The Complete Guide To Creating A Name For Your Company, Product, Or Service, Rob Meyerson
Rob Meyerson says at the start of this book, ‘My goal for Brand Naming is simple: to create the most comprehensive, substantial, and well-informed guide to brand naming. By reading this book, you’ll discover what it took me years to fully understand: How to consistently create great names for companies, products and services.’
What he doesn’t say – because he’s such a lovely humble guy – is that it’s also really entertaining – a great, easy read.
It’s genuinely the only book you’ll ever need on the topic.
If you want more from Rob, he also has a course on naming on Domestika.
Book 7 is 'Obsessed: Building A Brand People Love From Day One', by Emily Heyward.
This is great if you're working with start-ups. It gives you some useful tips on how to do brand strategy, and includes some fascinating, recent case studies (e.g., Airbnb, Casper, Glossier, SoulCycle, Thinkx).
Love these quotes in particular:
“In today’s landscape, when consumers have more choice, knowledge and power than ever before, you have to approach branding with integrity from the beginning. Before you even start to think about your logo, you need to figure out what you’re aiming to do for people and how you want them to feel as a result.”
“On the surface, a business exists to solve a functional problem… But underneath these functional needs are core drivers, the universal things that people care about. All the best brands tap into these deeper human needs, beyond the functional, in one way or another.”
"Consumers fall in love with brands because of the ongoing, positive role these brands play in their lives. That's why it's so important to get it right from the beginning, and to continue to breathe life into your brand as it grows. You need a clear sense of purpose that will guide all decisions and behaviour, and you have to find new and surprising ways to express that purpose."
Finally, book 8 is one if you’re struggling to maintain your love for brand strategy at present because you’re just burnt out.
If it’s all feeling too overwhelming and you can’t seem to give yourself the space to do the deep thinking that’s required then, this book: Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, and Greg's first book, Essentialism, are quick reads that will give you some work and life tips.
In summary, the 8 books I’d recommend you take a look at are:
READ IF: you want to understand how brand strategy helps to turn a business around and have a compelling case study to talk about to clients.
READ IF: you want to understand how brand strategy influences business strategy and for detailed case studies.
READ IF: you want to understand how brand strategy and culture align and what it takes to engage employees in both.
READ IF: you want a refresher on the core things that can make or break strategy and messaging.
READ IF: you support clients in creating a brand identity and want data behind why brand identity matters, and what a strong brand identity really is.
READ IF: you want to fully understand the naming process and get the tools needed to do the job.
READ IF: you work with a lot of start-ups and you want some strong start-up case studies.
8. Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, Greg McKeown
READ IF: You’re experiencing brand strategy burnout. You love the work you do but it’s all feeling too overwhelming – you’ve too many projects going on at once and you can’t seem to give yourself the space to do the deep thinking that’s required.
Hope this helps you!
Well, here's a secret for you...
There are '7 Simple Steps' to a world-class brand strategy. They work for ANY brand in any industry, and you can get them FOR FREE in my 4-part video mini-course.
This proven formula is based on my 20 years of global brand strategy experience and study of the 181 world's most valuable brands, and it's yours today, for free.